Functional foods were first defined in the 1980s and have gained much attention worldwide; the global market for functional foods and beverages was estimated to be worth about $192 billion by 2020. Incidentally, Japan was the first country to propose legislation for the specific regulatory approval procedures of functional foods.
Several countries followed suit, including China, India, Brazil, the USA, and the European Union. Currently, the functional food industry is dynamic, innovative, and characterised by rapid growth. New foods and products are continually being identified, but with what we know so far, there’s already plenty to choose from if you’re looking to incorporate them into your diet.
What Are Functional Foods?
Functional foods may be defined as “any food that has a positive impact on an individual’s health, physical performance, or state of mind, in addition to its nutritious value”. Furthermore, it should regulate a particular body process, prevent the risk of chronic disease, help control physical and mental disorders, and slow the ageing process.
According to EU resources, if it can be proven that a food positively affects one or more target functions in the body, then this food is considered a functional food. Functional foods are part of our regular food and nutritional pattern, and can be classified as either natural (from plant or animal sources) or synthetic (nutraceuticals).
Functional foods contain biologically active compounds that are effective, non-toxic, and capable of regulating body functions. These compounds include phytonutrients such as carotenoids, isoflavones, flavonoids, isocyanates, phenolic acids, phytoestrogens, polyphenols, soluble dietary fibres, plant stanols and sterols, polyols, probiotics, and prebiotics.
Phytonutrients have been shown to play significant roles in maintaining health and reducing the risk of diseases, including but not limited to respiratory disease, infectious diseases, inflammatory disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and obesity. About 900 phytochemicals/phytonutrients have been found in a variety of foods.
It was previously believed that functional food components occurred mainly in plant-based foods such as whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. However, functional food components are also found in animal products like fermented dairy and cold-water fish. Functional foods have many essential health benefits and have been linked to the following:
- better weight management
- enhanced cognitive function
- improved blood sugar balance
- better blood circulation
- anti-ageing and longevity
- protection of liver health
- improved gut health
- reduced risk of cancer
- lower risk of heart disease
- prevention of neurodegenerative disease
- reduced inflammation
Different functional foods contain various health-promoting bioactive components. Orange foods, for instance, are abundant in carotenoids. Green foods contain chlorophyll and various nutrients necessary for health, such as vitamin K, folate, magnesium, potassium, and dietary nitrates. Purple/blue foods contain polyphenols that assist with learning, memory, and mood, such as flavonoids, flavonols (quercetin), and phenolic acids. And red foods are high in antioxidants, red-food carotenoids (astaxanthin and lycopene), anti-inflammatory properties, and immune system modulators like vitamin C.
10 Examples of Everyday Functional Foods
Berries such as blackberry, blueberry, strawberry, and raspberry are rich in vitamin C, dietary fibre, potassium, and folate. Moreover, they are among the best dietary sources of bioactive components such as anthocyanins, flavonoids, phenolic acids, and tannins. Anthocyanins are responsible for the red, blue, or purple colour of berries.
These bioactive have strong antioxidant properties, which help combat free radicals that can lead to oxidative stress and inflammation if left uncontrolled. Berries have been linked with the prevention of obesity, hypertension, type II diabetes, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Their rich polyphenol content supports the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
Tip: Frozen berries are considered nutritious and retain their nutritional components, so add them to your favourite smoothie! Berries can also be added to salads and healthier desserts.
Pomegranate is rich in bioactive compounds that contribute to better health, including tannins and flavonoids such as quercetin and anthocyanins. Pomegranate peel and juice possess strong antioxidant properties. Pomegranate seeds and juice may help prevent cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer.
Tip: Add pomegranate seeds to oatmeal, salads, or as a garnish on dips.
3. Cruciferous Vegetables
Crucifers include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, and bok choy. Glucosinolates are the most studied biologically active compound within cruciferous vegetables, responsible for the bitter taste and pungent odour in these vegetables. Glucosinolates can help with blood sugar control, blood pressure regulation, and lipid profile balance. Sulforaphane, a type of glucosinolate, has positive effects on cardio-metabolic, neurological, and musculoskeletal health.
Tip: To maximise sulforaphane content, it is best to chop and/or chew crucifers very well.
The avocado belongs to the berry family. About 80% of the edible portion of avocado consists of water (72%) and dietary fibre (7%). A high-fibre diet may help lower blood cholesterol levels, prevent constipation, and improve the gut’s microflora by acting as a prebiotic. Avocado is an excellent source of monounsaturated fatty acids, which may increase ‘good’ high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and decrease ‘bad’ low-density lipoprotein (LDL). Avocados are rich in carotenoids, including lutein and zeaxanthin, and the lutein content of avocados is higher than any other fruit.
Tip: Use avocado to spread sandwiches instead of butter, cream cheese, or mayonnaise. Ripe avocados can be added to smoothies and salads.
5. Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are considered a crucial component of the Mediterranean diet and have long been used for their medicinal properties. Additionally, a frequent intake has been linked to reduced risk of heart disease, type II diabetes, and hypertension. Nuts contain high fibre, vitamin E, folate, magnesium, potassium, and calcium. They are made up of 50-75% fat, of which the least is saturated fat, while most are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. They are also a good source of protein.
Tip: Did you know that soaking nuts for several hours can make them easier to digest and improve their nutritional bioavailability?
6. Olive Oil
The bioactive compounds of olive oil – such as polyphenols, oleic acid, and tocopherols – have been correlated with longevity and decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer. Oleuropein is an essential bioactive compound in olive oil and its leaves.
The health-promoting properties of olive oil are largely attributed to the high concentration of monounsaturated fatty acids and the presence of a variety of phenolic compounds with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-microbial activities. Furthermore, olive oil has prebiotic effects, which promote the growth and diversity of ‘good’ gut bacteria.
Tip: Drizzle extra-virgin olive oil onto your salads. Avoid cooking with it at high temperatures as it can burn easily. Ensure that olive oil is purchased and stored in a glass bottle.
Ginger is one of the most widely used spices and medicinal plants. Traditionally, it has been used for various conditions, including the treatment of colds, digestive issues, fever, nausea, and vomiting. The main bioactive components of fresh and dried ginger are gingerol and shogaol. Ginger has anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and anti-hypertensive effects, and may be used to reduce muscle soreness after high-intensity exercise.
Tip: Add grated ginger to your tea, smoothies, soups, and stews.
Turmeric has a long tradition of use in the Chinese and Ayurveda systems of medicine. It has a broad spectrum of health benefits, including anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic, anti-hypertensive, antioxidant, anti-diabetic, and anti-microbial properties. Curcumin, the bioactive ingredient in turmeric, has been linked with improvements in joint pain, better blood sugar balance, and enhanced mood.
9. Green Tea
Green tea, especially Japanese matcha, includes various beneficial bioactive substances such as theanine, caffeine, chlorophyll, and catechins. The amounts of these bioactive in green tea depend on the tea type, the tea per portion, and brewing temperature and time. Green tea is particularly rich in phytonutrients like epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) that has been linked to protection against heart disease, improved cognitive function, reduced inflammation, inhibition of cancer cell growth, and better weight management.
Tip: Adding lemon to green tea enhances the absorption of EGCG 10 times more when compared to green tea alone.
Research has shown that moderate consumption of (3-4 cups) of coffee daily is associated with reduced risk of metabolic disease, prevention of neurodegenerative disease, and greater longevity. During the roasting process, the chemical reactions yield coffee that’s rich in various compounds (like melanoidins, and caffeine), which provide aroma, flavour, and colour.
Roasted coffee is a complex mixture of thousands of bioactive compounds that may have health-promoting properties such as antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-proliferative effects. Moreover, the roasting process increases the soluble dietary fibre content in roasted beans.
Tip: Add a pinch of turmeric, cinnamon, or cocoa to your coffee for extra flavour and antioxidants.
Due to the synergistic effects of bioactive compounds, it’s recommended to eat a variety of functional foods every day. And since functional foods are found in everyday foods, primarily fruits and vegetables – as well ad herbs, spices, legumes, and seafood – that’s actually easier than it sounds.
Consuming these foods will enable you to sample from thousands of phytonutrients that may help reduce the risk of chronic disease and promote longevity, and it doesn’t matter whether functional foods are consumed fresh or frozen, cooked or raw. Add them to your homemade smoothies, salads, stews, and soups. Herbs and spices can be used as seasonings to enhance flavours.
Farah Hillou is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and an Integrative and Functional Nutrition Certified Practitioner. Visit @wellness.in.colours or connect with her via LinkedIn for more information.
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent Gaggler‘s views.